Oct 10, 2008 Herm Card Uncategorized
Did you know the Oneida Nation played a significant role in the American Revolution?
Behind the 18th green at the Oneida Nation’s Atunyote (uh-DUNE-yote — the Oneida word for “eagle”) golf course, a replica Revolutionary War era nine-pounder cannon is manned by a gun crew in the military clothing of that time.
While it is unusual to find a cannon trained down the fairway of a course that is hosting a PGA tour event, it might seem more unusual that several of the gun crew are Native American.
The cannon and its crew (historians/teachers affiliated with the Oneida Indian Nation First Allies Program) are symbolic of the relationship between the Oneida and the American colonists 230 years ago. The Oneidas were, as the name of their program reflects, Americans first allies in the struggle for freedom, a sovereign nation coming to the aid of colonists struggling to establish their own sovereignty.
The cannoneers are part of a “living history” department committed to making the public aware of this sometimes little known piece of history. It does this through work at such historically important National Park Service sites as Rome’s Fort Stanwix, the battlefield at Saratoga and the continental army’s winter encampment at Valley Forge.
These are all sites where the Oneida’s efforts helped turn the tide of the Revolution.
Like similar living history educators, the First Allies instructors are passionate about history and the importance of bringing it alive for students. In an era when far too much emphasis is placed on testing and standards based curriculum, First Allies devotes itself to the excitement and energy of connecting past and present.
First Allies’ director Dan Umstead, has been with the Oneida Nation for 15 years, the past six with First Allies. Trained as a preservation librarian, Umstead said that he originally preserved history and now he teaches it.
“First Allies brings to light the role the Oneidas played in our fight for independence,” he said.
Despite the Oneida’ significant role in our struggle for freedom, the fact “the winners write history” has relegated their story to something of a sidebar, difficult to find in history books — a situation that Umstead and his teachers are trying to rectify.
Why an alliance?
According to Kuhl and Patterson, the alliance between the Oneida and the colonists was logical, even though (in allegiance with the Tuscaroras) it caused an inevitable split in the Iroquois Confederacy.
“They tried to stay neutral, but they were trying to protect their own land from the British, and helping the colonists was a way to do this. Their contribution was more than significant.
“For example, at the battle of Barren Hill, (near Philadelphia, PA) the Oneidas fought a rear guard action that prevented the British from capturing Lafayette. That would have been a critical loss to the revolution, but it’s not well known,” he said.
Teacher and Nation member Ron Patterson spent his youth on the Seneca Reservation, learning the traditions of his native culture and brings this knowledge to the visiting school groups he educates, as well as to the youth of the Oneida nation.
“What is common knowledge to me, is a surprise to them. Not all of the young Oneidas have had the opportunity to learn that I did,” he said. “This is an opportunity to bring the message of the past to young minds.
“I learned the traditions of my people growing up, and it is important to keep those traditions alive. One of my best moments was when a school group was leaving Fort Stanwix and one of the students asked the teacher why they didn’t teach this in school.”
Fellow cannoneers, Nation member John Logan and volunteers Dale Sumner and Peter Payne echoed his sentiments, citing the value of “hands-on” education as an enrichment of the typical classroom experience. In an era when much of the energy of teaching and excitement of learning is stifled by the focus on standardized testing, the teachers of First Allies bring authentic learning to their various “classrooms.”
Oneida Nation member Kathy Kuhl said that working for the First Allies program is an opportunity to bring the stories of heroic women to students and point out the important role they played, not only in native culture but in the fight for freedom in the early colonial days.
“One of our programs is at Valley Forge. We tell the story of an Oneida woman named Polly Cooper who was part of a group of Oneidas who took corn to Valley Forge to feed the army,” she said.
At that time, the Mohawk Valley could be considered the “breadbasket of America,” rich in food crops such as native corn. The Continental Army, quartered for the winter at Valley Forge, was seriously under-supplied with food, an oversight that the Oneidas played a key role in rectifying.
Not only did Polly Cooper help transport the corn, but enduring the same arduous winter conditions as the Continental Army faced in 1777-78, she taught the potentially starving soldiers how to prepare and cook it — a difficult process for the people unfamiliar with the native crop.
Kuhl said, “Without her help, the corn would have been useless and many soldiers would have starved.”
It is historically recounted that no soldiers starved, yet “Polly Cooper’s name doesn’t appear very often,” Kuhl said.
Award winning program
The ongoing success of First Allies is reflected by its selection as a winner of the 2008 Presidential Volunteer Award for education work in National Parks. According to Umstead, the Presidential Award requires a minimum of 4,000 hours of educational service time — First Allies provided over 11,000.
Umstead said his staff and volunteers “are natural teachers, passionate about their role in preserving the history and tradition of the Oneidas. It is a pleasure and an honor to work with them.”
For information on First Allies programs, contact20Dan Umstead at Oneida Indian Nation Living History Program at 829-8300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.